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At last I stopped and looked behind me. I could still see the clearing in the forest, like a phosphorescent light through the trees. When my brain began to work again, I realized that I was automatically retracing my steps. Carefully I went back in my mind, reviewing all my conversations with Clara, reexamining all the instructions we had agreed on. There was one in particular that I remembered, and I seized upon it: If we got lost on the way out, we would meet up at the chontos [makeshift latrines]. We had mentioned it once, fleetingly, without really believing we were going to escape.

Fortunately, my sense of direction seemed to be working in the jungle. In the grid of a big city, I could easily get lost, but in the jungle I could find my way. I emerged exactly level with the chontos. Of course there was no one. I heard voices. I tried to see what was going on over by the camp. The storm had given way to a biting and persistent drizzle, and now I could hear other sounds, like the commander's loud voice. They must have been very near, because I heard one of them shout that he had already seen me. I camouflaged myself among the roots of an old tree while praying to the Lord to make me invisible. With each step I repeated, "I am free," and my voice kept me company.

I stood motionless. I saw myself drowning in that liquid mud. I came up with excuses to avoid diving in. With Clara I probably would not have hesitated, but now I was afraid. My terror consisted of a series of pathetic little fears: fear of being soaked again, after I had managed to get warm by walking. Fear of losing my backpack and the meager supplies it contained. Fear of being carried away by the stream. Fear of being alone. Fear of dying carelessly.

These thoughts shamefully exposed to me who I was. Now I understood that I was still an ordinary, second-rate human being. I had not suffered enough to find the rage in my guts. I needed to risk death for freedom. I was a dog who, no matter how beaten up, would still wait for a bone. I looked around anxiously for a hole to hide in. The guards would come to the river, too, and search here more thoroughly than elsewhere. Of course I could go back into the thick of the jungle. But they were already on my heels, and I risked running into them.

Near the river there were mangroves and old rotting trunks, relics of long-ago storms. One tree in particular had a sizable recess on one entire side. The mangrove roots created a barrier all around it, and it seemed to provide the best hiding place. On all fours, then crawling and wriggling, I managed to make my way inside the hollow. I carefully unfolded the big plastic sheet that had been tucked within my boot since my escape and tended to the task of making the cavity of the trunk a safe haven.

*****


That is when I saw her. Yiseth. One of the guards. She had her back to me. She had arrived at a trot, without her rifle, but with a revolver in her fist. She was wearing a sleeveless vest in camouflage material, but she seemed harmless. She turned around very slowly, and her eyes found mine instantly. She closed them for a second as if to thank the heavens and then walked toward me warily.

Her smile was sad as she extended her hand to help me crawl out of my hiding place. I did as she instructed. She was the one who carefully folded up my plastic sheet and flattened it lengthwise so that I could put it back in my boot. She nodded, and then, satisfied, she addressed me as if I were a child. Her words were strange. She did not use the self-conscious speech of the guards, who were always worried that a comrade might tell on them. At one point she looked at the river and, as if she were talking to herself out loud, her words were full of regret as she confessed that she, too, more than once, had thought of running away. I talked to her then about my children, my need to be with them, how urgent it was for me to go home. She told me about the little baby that she had left with her mother, although he was only a few months old. She was biting her lip, and her black eyes welled with tears. "Leave with me," I said. She took my hands, and her expression turned cold again. "They would find us and kill us." I begged her, squeezing her hands even harder, obliging her to look at me. She refused outright, took up her weapon, and stared at me. "If they see me talking to you, they will kill me. They're not far. Walk ahead of me and listen carefully to what I have to say to you." I obeyed, picking up my things, putting my backpack over my shoulder. She stuck right behind me and whispered, her lips against my ear. "The commander has ordered the men to abuse you. When they get here, they will scream at you, insult you, shove you around. Above all don't react. Don't say anything. They want to punish you. They're going to take you away.... Only the men will stay with you. We women have to go back to the camp. Do you get it?"

Her words echoed in my brain, empty shells, as if I had lost my Spanish. I was making a great effort to concentrate, trying to go beyond the sounds, but fear had paralyzed my thoughts. I was walking without knowing that I was walking; I was looking at the world as if it were a fish in an aquarium. The young woman's voice came to me distorted, alternately very loud, then inaudible. My head felt like it was being squeezed in a vise. My tongue was covered with a dry paste, stuck to my palate, and my breathing had become deep and heavy. As I was walking, the world was rising and falling to the rhythm of my steps. The resonant beating of my heart filled my inner space, causing my skull to vibrate.

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